Challenge of digital solutions in agriculture

Tuesday, May 25th, 2021 00:00 | By
Sugarcane farming. Photo/Courtesy

Nixon Mageka      

Agriculture plays a significant role in Africa’s economy, contributing 32 per cent to the continent’s Gross Domestic Product and employing 65 per cent of the total work force (as per the World Bank estimates).

Nearly 70 per cent of the continent’s population directly depends on agribusiness.

Majority of farmers work on small scale farms responsible for nearly 90 per cent of all agricultural output. 

However, agriculture in the continent faces challenges that include poor access to agronomic, market and weather information; poor access to finance for agricultural inputs and capital investment; poor access to infrastructure and modern equipment; fragmented or inadequate access to markets and more frequent and extreme weather resulting from climate change.

Very effective digital solutions now exist with capabilities to resolve most challenges in production through to marketing. 

However, significant investment in digital solutions is required to advance the scale and impact of digital agriculture.

 Agriculture in Africa is making use of emerging technologies and many agri-tech start-ups have come up with solutions that have led to a rise in productivity. 

The, young and dynamic sub-Saharan African population is quickly embracing artificial intelligence, mobile platforms and drones that offer ways to improve precision in management.

 Other agri-tech solutions including mobile applications that use digital platforms such as cloud computing to reach out to farmers now provide farmers with apt agricultural solutions.

Technologies such as remote sensing, are steadily moving from experimental to full-scale deployment, contributing to the data revolution in agriculture while also unlocking new business models and opportunities.

Apart from these, blockchain is gaining prominence, and finding applications in the agriculture sector in Africa.

This technology has the potential to significantly impact the agriculture sector, which we will discuss in the second part of our series on agri-tech in Africa.

But cost and availability hinders the success of these services and their ability to benefit  Africa’s smallholder. 

Limited affordability and knowledge to access such technologies, especially by small-scale farmers, has restricted the growth and access to these solutions.

Making agri-tech more affordable and accessible can overcome this, but this requires a collaborative approach to investment and development in a supportive policy environment.

 A study I undertook supported by Technoseve East Africa funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates on Innovations for Outcome Measurement recommended that development of the digital systems should be user-driven to ensure that the content becomes more farmer-centric and solutions more user-friendly.

This also enables deeper research on business models and better focus on understanding farmers’ needs, thereby improving product design.

Agri-tech should ensure coordinated development where best practices are shared and a collaborative approach to scaling up focus on smallholders, is adopted.

 Secondly, agri-tech should properly identify distribution channels that ensure farmers’ access to suppliers and the right markets programmes.

Lack of market linkages substantially increases transaction costs, and post-harvest losses, perpetuate farming as a social rather than business activity and reduces market efficiency. AgriTech should aim at addressing these limitations.

Thirdly, the systems and business models they support should be sustainable.

Lastly, there should be strong partnership with local government and agricultural stakeholders.

Partnering takes full advantage of the knowledge, skills and experience that partners offer each other. 

These stakeholders can develop stronger value chains and systems that lead to improved outcomes at each stage of agricultural production, marketing and consumption.  —The writer is a technology, data and public policy expert

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